Saturday, August 18, 2007


Chinese chemicals in your "health" foods?

by Larry Geller

Astute shoppers know that many, if not most, of the products for sale in health food stores are not necessarily good for you. Maybe they're better than corresponding products in the supermarkets, or maybe not. Increasingly, shoppers are aware that these products contain problematic quantities of salt and sweeteners.

To entice you to purchase, packaged foods may be laced with added doses of vitamins and minerals that are supposed to be good for you. This is nothing new, if you remember Wonderbread ("Wonder Bread builds strong bodies 8 ways"). The "8 (later 12) ways referred, of course, to the number of added nutrients. And during the war (WWII I mean), this wasn't a bad thing. The government program to enrich white flour greatly reduced the incidence of beriberi and pellagra.

Manufacturers add chemicals, sometimes called "nutraceuticals" to health foods not to be sure you won't get beriberi, but to entice you to take them home with you. Of course, you have no idea how much of these chemicals you are really getting in each portion or where these chemicals are manufactured.


Yes, many are manufactured in China. And China has been in the news recently as a source of tainted food products.

Digging into the box

Supermarkets now compete with health food stores, sometimes with the same brands and sometimes with their own. For example, Safeway has its own brand of organics marked with the "O" brand. I also found Eating Right products, including breakfast cereal, which claim dietary and nutritional benefits. I bought a box of Eating Right Muesli Cereal, which claims to be low fat and  "good source of 14 vitamins & minerals."

Now, a low fat claim is innocent enough and a good thing. Let's read the label.

The ingredients list on the box started off with raisins, then a list of whole grains, and ended with the corn syrup, salt, and malt flavoring that usually appears much earlier in the list in other supermarket cereals. Oops, the period on the end  of the ingredient list isn't really the end. Below the ingredient list is another list, "Vitamins and minerals." It should have been part of the ingredient list. But  never mind, maybe it was a proofreader's error.

What follows is a list of chemicals. Indeed, this product is a "nutraceutical." It makes health claims based on the added mixture of chemicals which are there so that it can make health claims.

Of course, their country of origin is not given. Too bad, because some of them are likely to be made in China. Wherever they come from, they are usually produced by complex reactions from sources that are definitely not "O" for organic.

Checking the list of chemicals on my box against the index of Twinkie Deconstructed by Steve Ettlinger, I found, for example:

Thiamine hydrochloride--produced when crystals of thiamine are reacted with methanol, hydrochloric acid, and ethanol (p. 38). The largest plant producing thiamine is located a couple of hours north of Beijing, a joint venture between the German firm BASF and Tianjin Zhongjin Pharmaceutical Co.

According to the book, the manufacturing process varies from company to company, but usually starts with coal tar. Yup. We can argue whether that's a natural ingredient or not. The book says that "Thiamine chemicals are finished with about fifteen steps that may include, depending on the company, such appetizing processes as oxidation with corrosive strength hydrogen peroxide and active carbon; reactions with ammonium nitrate, ammonium carbonate, and nitric acid (to form a salt); and washing it with alcohol. It is edible at this point..."

Riboflavin--according to the book, the largest manufacturer in the world is Guangji Pharmaceutical Co. in Hubei, China. This plant makes over two thousand tons a year of riboflavin (perhaps also the riboflavin in this cereal?). In huge tanks that stand as much as six stories high, the book says, enzymnes work for a few days to excrete riboflavin. From what, you may ask? "It might be a stinky mix of nutrient-rich waste fats, or cod-liver oil or canola or soybean oil." There are other, less noxious choices, such as millet seeds kept for a week at 90 degrees F. Whatever.

Folic acid--for this, we go to Changzhou, China, two hours, according to the book, from Shanghai. There some is made from fermented as well as petroleum products. The latter "is maade from a high-tech soup of an amino acid (glutamic acid, the one that turns into MSG when mixed with sodium; ketchup is full of glutamic acid), a foul-smelling, flammable form of acetone (also found in nail polish remover), and pteroic acid, otherwise known by the catchy nickname 2-amino-4-oxopteridin-5-yl, or sometimes 4-([2-amino-4-hydroxy-6-pteridylmethyl]amino)benzoic acid, a blend of paraffin and butyric acid, both petrochemicals. ... This forms folic acid--pteroyl-L-glutamic acid--that is in turn refined, reduced in acidity, purified with zinc and magnesium salts, crystallized, dried, and sterilized until only a fine, dark powder remains, ready to ship off to the flour mills."

Beta carotene--this comes from carrots, right? No, it's synthesized. The book doesn't say where it comes from.

And how much of these fine chemicals do you get in a serving?

 I pulled the inside bag from the box and noticed that the corn flakes had largely migrated to the top. At the bottom were white things that might be oats or barley along with powedered or crushed substances. So unless you dump everything out and mix it up when you buy it, my guess is that the first few servings would be short of the advertised nutrients and your last bowl could contain megadoses. That's just a guess, I'm not Consumer Reports (and too bad they don't report on things like this).

It's not like taking a daily vitamin pill. The dose you get is a crap shoot. Nor are all the ingredients necessarily effective. Remember, they are there to convince you to buy the box, not because they'll necessarily do you any good.

And who knows where they are made.


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